I tend to doubt myself… A lot.
“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt.”
– William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
I will never forget how it felt sat in the changing room before my second ever fight. Weeks and weeks of training had led to this: hours of accumulated effort channeled into three two minute rounds. If the days leading up to this moment had been a marathon, this was the final sprint.
You would think all those months of preparation would help create a certain degree of confidence. After all, how could I possibly fail after all that work?
Somewhat surprisingly, this was not the case. I have never been quite as nervous as I was sat in that changing room. Fumbling, I had to remove and retie my hand wraps. What was going on? I had tied them thousands of times before.
My mind began to reel:
Had I really forgotten everything?
Was I about to make a terrible mistake?
Would I get knocked out?
“Come on, you need to keep warm,” one of my coaches explained holding up a set of pads.
I nodded, quickly turning to slip on my gloves. Fuck, my palms were sweaty. He called for me to hurry up; I would be fighting next. As I began practising the combinations, I remember hoping he wouldn’t notice how scared I was. Maybe, just maybe, if I was able to convince him of my confidence, I would be able to fool myself as well.
It didn’t take long for my body to loosen into the warm up.
Jab, left hook.
Double jab, cross.
Jab, cross, left uppercut.
My nerves, my doubts were still there. I knew, the minute I stepped into that ring, I could very well lose. But still, there was no way I was quitting, my whole family were outside waiting to watch. To quit would be worse than losing.
Wracked with doubt, I had only one choice. I had to push myself harder. Only in trying my absolute hardest, could I hope to keep the doubt at bay.
Gradually, my punches grew sharper. I began moving in and out. Keep my distance… Jab. Back out of range… Jab, cross. The doubt was there, but so was a growing confidence that it could be overcome. If I pushed myself even harder, I would win.
It took till the final ten seconds of the third round for the referee to stop the fight.
I had won.
Whenever I have feelings of doubt, or apprehension, I like to think back to that day. It is increasingly common for those peddling motivation to tell us that our doubts are lies, or even worse, dangerous. They lead us astray and stop us from reaching our full potential. The secret is to remain positive, visualise victory and push our doubts aside. It is like Shakespeare said, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we might oft win”.
As an English teacher, it is almost blasphemous for me to say this, but Shakespeare was wrong.
You see, I would not have won if it weren’t for my doubts. Allow me to explain. If I hadn’t doubted my ability to win, I wouldn’t have trained over five hours a week. I wouldn’t have taken to running every morning in an attempt to improve my stamina. I wouldn’t have listened intently to my coaches advise between rounds in sparring.
To have no doubts at all, well there is a word for that…
It is called arrogance, and people tend to not like that. Doubts have to be present in order to give us a reason to work harder. What is needed is the balance between our doubt, and the confidence that it can be overcome with the right amount of work.
Anxiety and doubt, serves an important biological purpose. There is a reason why somebody looking up at Mt Everest doubts whether or not they can make it to the top. If there was no doubt, and no need imprinted upon the individual to suitably prepare, it could lead to a very nasty case of being dead.
When I doubt it is safe to cross the road, I don’t immediately damn my feeble psyche for holding me back and walk ahead anyway. Again, this, like my previous example, leads to being dead. In case there is any confusion, this is something we want to actively try and avoid.
No. What you actually do is listen to that doubt. It stops you from storming ahead, and allows you to take in your surroundings. You check if it is in fact safe, then move on.
This is the important part. You move on. Whilst doubt is necessary, it should never become an excuse to stand still, or avoid pushing forwards. Instead, it should allow us to assess the situation and face our challenges in a more efficient, prepared manner.
Take a marathon as an example. It is new years day and you – in your infinite stupidity – have decided it is a good idea to run twenty six miles. Whilst you run occasionally, you have never tried anything close to this distance.
The way I see it, there are three ways this can go:
1. The path of no doubt
You, lacking any real understanding of the task at hand, have zero doubts about your ability to complete a marathon. You immediately sign up for the first marathon you see, ignoring the fact it gives you less than a couple months to train.
Believing you can already run a marathon, you go about life as normal. You might go on the odd run, but no more than you normally would.
Before long it is the evening before the marathon. A friend asks you to go out drinking. Giving zero thought to your run the next day you agree and head out for a few drinks. One drink becomes twenty and a bottle and a half of tequila later you fall asleep on your friend’s kitchen floor.
Beep, beep, beep.
The sound cuts through you like a knife. You open your eyes. The room is spinning. It is at this moment you realise there is less than an hour till your race. Bollocks.
Somehow, by some great miracle, you make it to the start line. You look around at everyone warming up and stretching, loading up on energy gels before the race. You yawn, beginning to miss the kitchen floor.
There is a sudden noise and everyone around you begins moving. Still slightly drunk from the night before it takes you a moment to realise the race has started.
Come three miles in your legs are aching and your head is still spinning. You see somebody handing out drinks and just keep running. It is better to get this done with quickly and head home for a proper drink.
You reach the eight mile mark. This is the furthest you have ever run. Your legs have grown heavy and your mouth is unbearably dry. How far back was that water stop?
The race goes on like this. Sometimes, depending on how motivated you are you might still finish, however, you will end up walking large distances and finish the race feeling like shit. Since you never had any doubts in the first place, you won’t feel any pride in having overcome anything. In fact, you might be left questioning why it gave you so much trouble. Instead of pride, you feel upset because it should have been easy.
That is if you do finish. It is equally, if not more likely you don’t. As you had no doubt in the first place, you will find the idea of you failing hard to comprehend. You will end up making excuses and blaming the race or its organisers. It isn’t your fault. It’s the race! It’s stupid.
2. The path of doubt over action
You immediately boot up your computer and begin researching marathons. You’re nervous. The furthest you have ever ran is eight miles and you are not sure you’ll be able to make it any further.
Listening to your doubt, you google, “How difficult is a marathon?” You are immediately sucked into a series of bloggers recounting just how horrendous their marathon experiences were.
You use their bad experiences to confirm your doubt. If they couldn’t do it, who can blame me if I can’t?
You end up deciding a marathon just isn’t for you.
3. The path of action over doubt
Again, like above, you immediately boot up your computer. You’re nervous, but instead of seeking out affirmation for your doubt, you search for practical solutions. You find a series of vlogs targeted at beginner marathoners. It offers hints and tips.
They are upfront about the difficulty of the task at hand, but they offer advice and ways around this. This gives you the confidence that, with a little work, you can overcome your doubts.
You immediately sign up for a marathon that gives you a suitable amount of time to train.
You doubt you could make the distance in your current state, so you take action over this by upping your distance each week.
You doubt your preparedness for race day, so you take action over this by reading up on what to expect come race day. As a result, you invest in suitable gels to keep you energised on the day. You also learn the importance of having the correct footwear and go out the next day to buy some new trainers.
You doubt your motivation to run alone each day, so you take action over this by joining a local running club etc.
I am sure you get the point.
Along the way there is always doubt. The trick is, you don’t affirm this doubt, agreeing that nothing can be done. Instead, you take this as a sign that something must be done. You ask yourself, what action can be taken to build my confidence in overcoming this doubt.
By doing this, you allow yourself to become more motivated. Note how in my first example you had no motivation to train or prepare. If you know you can do something, what is the point?
Doubt: offers you a reason to work, something to push past. Then, when you cross that finish line – which you will do having made smart decisions in response to your doubt – you will feel all the better for it. You will feel as if you have achieved something that once wasn’t possible.
This is progress, and can only come from a place of doubt.
This is where I find fault in many of the approaches to doubt. Often, we are told to take action despite doubt. Doubt is seen as some kind of affliction that is holding us back. We are told to not waste our lives living in doubts.
I disagree. I say that we jump headfirst into those doubts. They are the fuel for action. Doubt, is a beautiful reminder that there is progress yet to be made.
So, I would like to leave you with this:
Never think, I doubt therefore I can’t, or I shouldn’t bother.
Instead, you should always think, I doubt therefore I can…
It just takes a little action.